Poetry of Syria: Green Dreams in Red World

Poetry of Syria: Green Dreams in Red World

Translated and introduced by Saleh Razzouk, Philip Terman and Murray Alfredson

 

imagesSyria gained independence from the French mandate in 1946, so we must consider it a fairly new country with deep roots in the Islamic past. Alexander the Great made it a part of his empire in 333 and 332 bc. At the close of the 4th century bc it was appropriated by Seleucus I, one of Alexander’s generals, who founded Antioch as the capital… Later both areas, and much of western Asia, passed to the Seleucids, whose realm became known as the kingdom of Syria.

Literature, however, did not concentrate on the war of independence as one would think, because a new challenges on the frontiers took place with Israel. Since 1948, Syria fought Israel. Five big clashes erupted in 1984, 1976, 1973,1982 and 2006. This upheaval left traces on every aspect of Syrian life. One can say it forced new directions and created major trends in all aspects of culture and day-to-day life, including literature.

In terms of poetry, we can distinguish four distinct thematic movements:

National concerns. Here, the main entries are: Palestine, land, clouds of fire smoke and roses sent, etc… National poetry contains a deep rift. Either the poets themselves are either pro-regime voices with loud tonality and direct slogans or, rather, they are on the side of the regime but prioritize artistic elaboration. Modernity occupied the latter group and the discourse is not naked without any make up. On the contrary, it made great advances in every aspect, particularly in questions concerning poetic freedom.

Political matters.  Wherein individual poets attack the status of defeat and decadence, blaming repression and American imperialism. Essentially the 1950s were a time of political aspirations. It witnessed the initiation of the Syrian Writers League and its manifesto: “A Road to the Top,” in which the league called for poetry from the rising new nations, such as the Cubans, the Soviets and the Chinese to help Syria in building suitable ethics and aesthetics that can confront Western colonialism.

syria-before-after

Erotic or Velvet poetry.  Here, the main discourse is the sad self, or injured civilization.  Included in this group is the liberation from old chains like masculine society, etc.  Erotic poetry called upon writers to abandon socialist realism and to start at once from within, where the true reality develops. In other words, from the self. One can say if political thread in literature is the thesis, the erotic one is the antithesis. And from this turning point early in the 1960s is where modern and avant-garde experiences started.

The last trend is Islamic poetry, which reflected Jihadist tones; the poetry establishment considered this poetry as the remnants of an archaic past.

On the other hand, Syria enjoys a great deal of poetry from minorities, such as the Kurds, the Armenians and the Assyrians, all of whom contributed to the Syrian experience, either in Arabic like the great poet Salem Barakat, who is of Kurdish origins, or in their mother tongue like Luci Sulahyan, the Armenian writer who lives recently with her husband in Canada.

Prose-poetry started in Syria as early as the 1940s in the form of praises to God, but very soon diverted to secular and mainly existential subjects. In the 1980s it became the one and only style youths have absorbed. It is now a strong player in Syrian poetry, ushering a whole generation to new sensitivities and has developed new structures and discourses.

The dilemma of Syrian poetry seems eternal.   The best description to this conflict is in Adonis’ interpretation of it. The constant elements of sensitivity dwell within the changeable elements. In other words, the traditions defy modernity, which in turn is traumatized and suffers from ambiguity and uncertainty.  Does “modernity” mean a breaking away from traditions, or does it mean that everything follows the western establishment? The debate is still on.

 

 

Prior to the Departure

 

by Iman Chahin Sharba

 

Before I was killed by a matter of minutes I was combing the hair of my daughter

And braiding her plaits

With pair of tweezers in the shape of a map.

Before I died in matter of a few minutes

I was telling my husband

About possible solutions for peace

And assuring my children

That the war is almost nearing to an end.

 

Before I was killed by a matter of hours, I was baking the sweets Of salvation. I named it the gathering cake

And decorated it with colors from my country.

Before I was killed in a matter of days here,

I was visiting the grave of my brother

To whisper in his ears the verses of peace and harmony.

I asked myself

Do I expect to live longer?   Now here I am dreaming And choking out gradually

Gradually

Just to wake up from the nightmare of tweezers

In the shape of a map exploding into bits and fragments.

 

Translated by S. Razzouk and P. Terman

 

 

Wishes

 

by Riad Saleh Hussein

 

I wish to go to the village

To harvest cotton and breathe fresh air

I wish to come back to the city

On a van full of peasants and lambs

I want to wash in the river

Under the moonlight

I want to see a moon

In a street, a book or a museum

I want to build a room

Enough for thousand friends

I want to befriend the sparrow, the air and the stone.

I want to place a river

In the prison

I want to steal the cells

And throw them in the sea

I want to be a magician

And hide a knife in my hat

I want to reach my hand inside

and pull out a white song

I want to possess a pistol

To aim at the wolves

I want to be a wolf to swallow the shooter

I want to hide in a flower

Because I fear the killer

I want the killer dead

Whenever he sees the roses

I want to open a window

In every wall

I want to build a wall

In front of whoever closes the windows

I want to be an earthquake

To shake the idle hearts

I want to place in every heart

An earthquake of wisdom

I want to snatch a cloud

And hide it in my bed

I want the thieves to steal my bed

And hide it in a cloud

I want to make every word a tree, a loaf of bread or a kiss

I wish for whoever does not love trees

Bread

And kisses

To stop talking.

Translated by S. Razzouk and Philip Terman

 

 

Cities of Ashes

 

by Linda Abd Al-Baki

 

Life inscribes its tattoo on foreheads

Year

After

Year.

 

Entwines with seasons

Uses bodies as riverbanks.

 

Here we are,

Picking up our grim dresses

From the horizon lines.

 

Evenings, barred from visitors,

Set our feet free

To fall into the palms of daylight,

 

And to draw the maps of a smile on the margin

Of feasts.

 

We smell from its body

The aroma of eternity.

 

Whenever it turns around

We surge for its heart

And come back with empty bags.

 

The Witch says:

You’ll stink in its air.

In the neglected dictionaries

Wishes have been burnt.

 

It would crucify you on the wings of winds

But it could write you on the night’s wall

With the alphabets of sand

Or make rains that will wash you away

In your genealogical decline

Towards the cities of ashes.

 

Translated by S. Razzouk and P. Terman

 

The Besiege

by Ali Suleaiman

 

I think i see soldiers,

The water is blocked –

They chase me –  my mob and friends are all killed,

Some of them

run away or are being sold out….

.

I am besieged,

The sea of sand stretches in front of me…

 

I am besieged –

You provoked the coolies,

And deceived them,

You emptied them from their beliefs,

And from their silence.

 

I am besieged!

 

Why does the people matter?

You fight for them,

You are thirsty because of them,

And you got killed for their sake!!

 

We bought their spears

But you unsheathed the swords before their faces

And they succumbed to you.

.

Now what about you?!.

 

Have you not seen them – among us the swords in their hands against you.

Just last night  the soldiers

Were your friends,

Were your mob!

 

I am besieged!

I can see my clan with the soldiers!!

 

I am besieged!!

You would have been safe if you said: it is not my business.

Then we could accept you among us.

.

I am besieged…

 

The soldiers approach.

 

My chest now is planted with spears

And I am swimming in blood.

 

Translated by S. Razzouk and P. Terman

 

 

Niches of Lure

 

by Madeha Merhish

 

I’ll stand up from my poem,

put my rhymes behind me,

come down to you and check,

is my love for you

enough to fill my well?

 

O wind, cut loose your rein,

kneel within your land,

and loving, you will find me ill

though gasp-long far from you.

 

I should hide

behind an almond tree,

where you first taught me

to taste its bitter fruit.

 

O may the sun’s dazzle

lose itself

behind the scudding clouds.

 

And morning comes with winds;

that boat you do not ride.

Amazement freezes

in my heart;

expect not me to weep.

 

Time welcomes the gathering moment;

arms calmly enfold that place —

so let us please

dance to the sound.

 

I should expose

deception’s hiding holes

beside my window,

that you might blow right in

through doors flung wide, o wind.

 

O shed that modest garment,

o pour down heavily.

And look, it seeks the lightning

to match its thunder,

my smart cloud.

 

But I must shut

that door before me,

return to muddied silence,

flee the death of love.

 

Make up the numbers

come, my love,

do not be late —

tonight I count

my dear, dear unhopes.

 

I ache, I ache with longing.

O fear for me,

though none will sorrow for me.

 

Translated by S. Razzouk and M. Alfredson

 

from “Praise for Whom I Adore”

by Mohammed Umran

1

From where does a lover start to praise whom he adores?

From where does he enter into details of ambiguity and clarity

Of her secret body?

Are her shadows higher than praise?

Is her time undisturbed from earthy longing

And whispers?

 

2

Thanks to poetry,

I asked help from its language. It helped me.

In the loneliness of injured silence

Stands my love,

And grace shaded my hands.

I asked time to slow down

Till your hands appeared from the unknown to me.

So I attached myself to their horizons,

And the pieces of my soul crumbled.

Stretch out the shadows of your two hands’ sublime shade

To cover me with.

Now I dress in the shadows and the shadows dress in me.

Now the water of poetry

Drinks up the water of my soul.

 

3

My heart goes to the heart of the poem.

Its night’s track is too long—

it carried up its prophetic message

and ran through the grace of your hands.

Grace showed up,

Sinking deeper

Till its light fell into the two eyes

Of the sky’s oil,

Till the jewels of the star gleamed

In a vast body.

My heart goes for the heart of the poem.

It is the woman who came

From the beautiful absence—

She stole her calamity

And threw her ember in it.

The fire tongues started in the singings.

 

4

I finished the grace of my sadness. Is there any happiness?

It sits in my cup.

I drink it loudly and it drinks me.

I finished the grace of my sadness. O happiness

That comes when I wander. My heart

Is its cushion. Please, climb down. We may shine, together,

Over a night of poetry,

Or a night of longing.

 

Translated by S. Razzouk and P. Terman

 

 

 

On the Roads of Asia

 

by Hamid Badrakhan

 

I did not sit even once

Beside a stove fueled with oils from

Children’s blood

 

Or ablaze with fire of eagle’s heads.

I did not pluck the flowers from gardens.

I like life

With open and graceful doors.

 

*

 

The drops that go astray from the clouds

Fall on the ground with yells

But turn into whines

And sing to the ears of the soil

And the spring.

 

Like so, I was a drop among the people.

*

I am the son of the crowds

And one of those who pass in fives,

In tens,

In hundreds after hundreds

In thousands after thousands

To ask the sun

To give them back their lost eyes.

 

*

What begins from me does not end in a wall

But it continues to the cities…  the seas…the cotenants…

And the life.

 

*

I flattered young

Girls,

I hugged

Widows,

I made love to married women

With unique fierce will,

And I chased who killed Lorca…

 

I dance,

Dance to the last remaining

Second

Of my life

Just to give away bunches of flowers

in the minute of my death.

 

Translated by:  S. Razzouk and P. Terman

 

 

I Am Him: The Little and Ripe Jesus

 

by Nazih Abou Afsh

 

 

No salvation is there for me,

No absolution for me,

My body is asleep but my soul is

Awake,

My mouth is blind,

Every cell in me is saturated with

cold and moss,

No salvation,

No absolution,

My country is a wide bed and a certain death.

I am the little and ripe Jesus

Who grew behind closed doors and

Glittering mud,

Awakening the melody in the heart

Of his friend,

Sending back the lost dog’s cubs to

iIs mother.

I am

The little and ripe Jesus.

On a throne I come

to vanish on a throne,

My father’s home denies me,

The sky is not my place.

My body is guarded by bayonets,

Ditches and organized war’s laws.

In my blood alligators, epidemics

and sharks  breed.

No salvation is there for me,

No absolution.

My throat went too far in singing,

Thundering through flashes of

Flowering times.

 

Translated by Saleh Razzouk and Philip Terman

 

 

Poems for the Exile of Love

 

by Ahmad Baghdadi

 

“Every time I remember you a rose bleeds in my eyes.”

 

While you smoke a cigarette,

While you read the poem,

And while you walk along the ally that leads to the morning

When the windows are wide open overlooking the fields

Of the Euphrates and the wars

— when you see the night, how it sleeps enlightened with the shadow—

While

You listen to the noise and quarrels of children,

The creaks of doors and the old people’s annoyance

From the morning being late

And from the yawns of fields,

And while

You return to the dream

The poet must by now have finished writing the storm.

He bows a little

Calmly before the scene

To cover life with a flower before he went to sleep

In the estrangement of this world.

 

Translated by Saleh Razzouk and Philip Terman

 

 

Syria

 

by Riad Saleh Hussein

 

O happy and beautiful Syria

Like a stove in December

O Poor Syria

Like a bone between the teeth of a dog.

O hard-hearted Syria

Like a knife in the hand of a surgeon

We are your good and simple sons

Who fed on your bread, olives and whips.

Forever we shall lead you into the springs.

Forever we shall dry your blood with our green fingers

Your tears with our dry lips.

Forever we shall pave roads for you

And never let you get lost o Syria

Like a song in a desert.

 

Biographies of Poets:

 

Madeha Merhish: is a retired English teacher. Lives with her husband in Turkey.  She has published four collections of prose poetry.

Linda Abd Al-Baki: is a publisher and bookshop owner. She lives in AlSweda in southern Syria. She has written five collections of prose and free verse poetry.

Ali Sulaiman: born in Mesiaf in 1938. He chaired Alwahda agency for news and publication in Damascus in 1980s. Also, he served deputy to the minster of culture. He has many collections of prose poetry.

Mohammed Umran: ( 1934-1996) Born in Tartous in a coastal village, Omran started to teach Arabic language.  He chaired many positions in the establishment of the official Syrian media, and the union of Arabs writers. He edited many official literary journals and newspapers. He has received the Medal of Honor from the late Syrian president and has published his verse and prose poems in Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus. With the poet Adonis and others, he collaborated to promote progressive and modern traditions in Arabic poetry.

Iman Chahine Sharba: Syrian poet lives in Salamiah. She is mother for two children. Her works appeared in many journal and papers.

Hamid Badrakhan: (1924-1996) a Kurdish poet, farmer and journalist  from the Aleppo province. He lives in Turkey and works with the newspaper Gûnydin  (Goddmorning).  He has published two volumes of prose poetry in Arabic and many other collections in Kurdish and French.

Nazih Abou Afsh:  A Syrian poet whose work appeared in the 1980s. He belongs to the Beat Generation, characterized by an angry and profound voice. Among his works are God is Close to My Heart, O Depressing Time.. O Beautiful Earth, and Come to Define This Pessimism.

Ahmad Baghdadi: is a teacher of Arabic language in Damascus. He defected to Turkey where he lives and writes now.

Riad Saleh Hussein: (1954-1982) Syrian poet from Aleppo province. He was mute, worked in Cinema Life Magazine in Damascus, later for the Tishreen Daily untill his death after a brief arrest for unspecified reasons. He published three collections of prose poetry; the fourth appeared after his death. A complete edition of his works was published in Baghdad, edited by Emad Najjar. He was considered a pioneer of prose poetry in which you can detect elements from Yves Bonnefoy and Jacques Prevert. He is a symbol of the Beat Generation who continued to revolutionize prose poetry in Arabic in the post-Adonis era.

 

The Translators:

 

Saleh Razzouk is an assistant professor at the University of Aleppo, Syria.

Philip Terman is a poet and professor of Literature at Clarion University, USA.

Murray Alfredson is a poet, retired librarian and lecturer, Adelaide, Australia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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